The New American Dream: Reforming Higher Education to Promote Social Mobility
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931)
James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” during the Great Depression. Despite soaring unemployment, rampant homelessness, and mass despair, Adams envisioned a country ripe with opportunity for people with gumption, grit, and hard work. In other words, if you try hard enough, you can be socially mobile and you can enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did despite any disadvantages conferred by heritage. More than 80 years later, getting a college education is hailed as a ticket to the American Dream. But is it really? The truth is that some U.S. universities are much more successful than others at promoting social mobility among the students that need it most.
It’s no surprise that income increases with education, but before digging into the common features of colleges which best help their students advance economically, there are several troubling trends in the U.S. that have compromised Americans’ ability to succeed.
First, in a 2013 Hamilton Project policy memo, the Brookings Institution stated that family incomes had declined for a third of American children during the preceding decades; that there were stark achievement and opportunity gaps between low- and high-income students; and that countries with high income inequality such as the U.S. have low social mobility. To that last point, the Congressional Budget Office (Aug. 2016) recently reported that the top ten percent of families—those with at least $942,000 in marketable wealth (i.e., assets minus non-mortgage debt)—hold 76 percent of the wealth, and the bottom half of Americans hold only one percent. The CBO also revealed that families in the top ten percent saw their wealth increase by 54 percent between 1989 and 2013, while those in the bottom 25 percent experienced a six percent decrease.
Second, white families hold a disproportionate share of the wealth. The Urban Institute (2015) reported that as of 2013, white families had an average of seven times the wealth of African American families, and six times that of Hispanic families.
Third, student loan debt sits at around $1.4 trillion and recently overtook credit cards as the leading source of debt among Americans. There are 44.2 million people with federal or private loans for education, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans.
Lastly, while poor students typically fare as well as their wealthy classmates at top tier colleges, there are relatively few of them in traditionally elite or Ivy League institutions. Other schools such as Stony Brook and Baruch College, however, have greater numbers of lower-income students and have proven very successful in helping their students advance economically. As proof of point, three prominent professors of economics—Dr. Raj Chetty of Stanford, Dr. John Friedman of Brown, and Dr. Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard—designed the Equality of Opportunity Project. Its main objective is “to develop scalable policy solutions that will empower families to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes.” These researchers found that during the past 50 years, the proportion of children who were able to earn more than their parents actually dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent. In efforts to combat this trend, they created Mobility Report Cards to pinpoint colleges that admit relatively more students from lower-income families who end up with high incomes.
This article aims to identify what makes schools such as Stony Brook University and Baruch College so successful in promoting social mobility among students. In three exclusive interviews with eminent sociology professors from these institutions, we explore what makes these campuses so fertile for prosperity and what other schools should do to emulate their success.
Interviews with Professors from Universities with Socially Mobile Students
“I teach race and ethnicity; I teach urban sociology; I teach classes on the legacy of systemic racism. If I’m doing my part, it’s a salve on the wounds of friction when non-traditional students enter into the race.” Dr. Gregory Snyder, Baruch College
In April 2017, OnlineEducation.com conducted three telephone interviews with sociology professors from Stony Brook University and Baruch College with the belief that people in this academic discipline can offer unique insights about the policies, student demographics, and other features which made these schools among the best according to the EOP Mobility Report Card. In sum, these schools had relatively more students from the bottom quintile of family incomes who succeeded in reaching the upper quintile after graduation. These interviews have been reconstructed from notes and edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Joseph received her PhD from the University of Michigan and was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Scholar at Harvard University from 2011 to 2013. She’s a widely published expert on immigrants’ access to healthcare, cross-cultural racial construction, and gender and education, among other research foci. She’s currently completing a book on how U.S. migration affected the racial identities of Brazilians returning to Governador Valadares, a city in the state of Minas Gerais. Additionally, she’s studying how Latino immigrants’ documentation status impacts their healthcare access in the Boston area.
What do you think makes Stony Brook such a fertile environment for students to prosper?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the tuition for in-state students is still quite low and as a result, Stony Brook consistently ranks among colleges with the best value. For families concerned about the cost of education and who want their children to go to a university where they’ll get a good education, our school is financially accessible. Second, the quality of the faculty is important. A majority of the professors have PhDs and are actively conducting research while teaching. Students are exposed to people in the top of their fields. The other thing aside from the value is that Stony Brook has a partnership with Suffolk County Community College, which is not too far away. Basically it’s a joint admissions program where students can start out at Suffolk for two years and finish their education at Stony Brook. I think that helps explain how lower income students can come here and do well. I’ve had a number of students in my classes from this feeder program.
Do you have any ideas how other institutions can replicate Stony Brook’s success and attract students that might not under other circumstances go to college?
That’s a good question. In terms of replicating Stony Brook’s success, it’s hard to know what’s in place institutionally or structurally at other universities, but I certainly believe in making college more affordable and having offices on campus for first-generation students to get extra assistance in adapting to college. Any programs in place that can help students make that adjustment would be helpful. Also, tuition-free college for NY residents from families that make up to $100,000 is supposed to start in the fall. That’s something that will certainly improve Stony Brook’s ability to promote social mobility for college students. I was very happy that the program was proposed and that the state governor seems committed to it. Tuition is becoming so expensive and so many students are going into debt just to get a college degree. It’s very hard in this particular environment for institutions of higher education to balance increasing costs. How can colleges make their programs more affordable when they have diminishing resources? That’s a big challenge.
Do you think that online programs at Stony Brook or other universities can help promote social mobility?
It depends on the quality of the content that the online program provides. It’s an advantage to get quality instruction and to be able to do it from anywhere. If sitting in front of a computer as opposed to attending a campus is an effective way for students to learn and be assessed, I think that it works. Other considerations are what multimedia aids are used or how exams and assignments are administered. There’s been a push toward online instruction in a lot of public and some private universities—not to mention the explosion of television commercials—but a lot of them don’t have proper accreditation and end up not being as valuable for the student. The important part is whether the online program is affiliated with an accredited university and students are able to get something out of it.
Dr. Snyder received his PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and focuses his research on urban subcultures, including skateboarders and graffiti artists. A New York resident since 1992, Dr. Snyder’s first book, Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, was well-received by critics, readers, and the high-impact journal, Contemporary Sociology. Turning his attention to the west coast, Dr. Snyder recently published his second book, Skateboarding LA: Professional Street Skating in Public Space. Notably, he received the Whiting Fellowship in 2009.
What do you think makes Baruch College a place where students prosper economically?
Did you see that NY state just made tuition free for [qualifying] residents? That’s one way to do it! But the real answer to this question is simple: we just teach the kids they send us. We teach New York City kids. The reason we’re able to do what we do is that we’re not elitists. When I was growing up, my father sold life insurance. I’m the first person in my family to have an advanced degree. A lot of my colleagues, similarly, might have working class roots. I work in the department of sociology and anthropology, but a majority of of students at Baruch are there for business degrees. They’re there for the sole purpose of upward social mobility. My colleagues and I always talk about how much we love our students and what an honor it is to teach them. Even as we first get them as intro students or freshmen, they’ve already accomplished something major: simply getting to college is an accomplishment. I get loads of talented students who I think would be great scholars and writers, but they’re thinking, ‘Yeah, rich people can wait around for that to happen. I’ve gotta get a degree and make enough money to pay back the loans and start on this life.’ I honor that.
In doing my small part as a sociologist, I want to train my students the way that culture and subculture operate. They have to learn the language of power as they attempt to dismantle it; they have to understand the ideologies of capitalism as they attempt to use it for their own gain. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but most of our students are people are color and they’re New Yorkers. That in and of itself provides an education because you’ve dealt with racism; you’ve dealt with police; you’ve dealt with social structures. It’s a diverse mix of kids. There is no secret sauce [to promoting social mobility]. I don’t know how to replicate what Baruch is doing elsewhere. It’s important to understand that Baruch is primarily a business school. We have Hunter which specializes in healthcare; we have John Jay which specializes in criminology and law enforcement. You can get a BA or MBA at Baruch and the nature of it being a business school makes it attractive to people for whom social mobility is the main goal.
I teach race and ethnicity; I teach urban sociology; I teach classes on the legacy of systemic racism. If I’m doing my part, it’s a salve on the wounds of friction when non-traditional students enter into the race.
In addition to bringing down college costs, how do you think universities can promote social mobility?
They need to change the way that student debt is structured. Students carry the biggest debt burden in the country and they’re not allowed to default on it or refinance it. It can be very constricting. Even if your credit rating is through the roof and you’ve shown that you’re a responsible citizen, you’re still paying high interest rates compared to home loans. And there’s equity in homes! Overall, we need to figure out how to restructure and finance student debt.
Other than that, we’ll just keep teaching them. Make education affordable and make the debt not so constricting that some rainy day accident might plummet someone down into a hole after all this climbing. Also, textbooks should be a helluva lot cheaper. It’s a racket. They put out various editions, throwing in various bells and whistles like an accompanying DVD. Nobody uses that garbage. I’ve been asked to write them before, and I’ve refused; I write books. I don’t write textbooks.
Baruch has a number of online and hybrid programs. Do you think they can play a role in promoting social mobility?
I’ve been approached about doing the hybrid class. It seems like something that’s going to be imposed upon us. I’m generally opposed to online courses because I think that there’s an important human factor in education. I really love my students and I can only fall in love with them when I see them face-to-face. And that love makes me care and know something about them as people. I’m not opposed to technology, but there’s something to be said about getting a real-time education as opposed to a virtual education. There may be ways in the future with VR and other technology, and I’d like to think that the access would be first and foremost. For example, maybe we could advance our reach to people who are disabled so they don’t have to mess with buses and trains? Or for people who are in more remote countries and communities? Online education can facilitate access in in those cases.
Hannah Arendt said, ‘Education is the point at which we decide we love the world enough to take responsibility.’ There’s something about the classroom that fosters learning, intellectual solidarity, and sometimes competition to increase motivation or drive. In addition to older professors being afraid of change or using technology, administrators are interested in online education because it’s cheaper, even as their salaries are rising.
There’s a danger of creating a hierarchy of students who get a personal face-to-face education and non-elite students who get online education. If only the privileged kids can afford to be in my classroom and the less privileged kids are working two jobs, then we’re not using online education to increase social mobility. If done incorrectly, online education might be a hurdle to promoting a democratic, just world.
I will say this: I’ve lectured at Princeton, and I would put my students up against any students in the world. Some of that’s New York City pride, but my smartest students are as smart as any of the talented students across the country. I have a kid right now named Chris who’s from Long Island, a son of a preacher with a part-time job. He’s the frontman in a band, which tours and puts out records, and he’s carrying a 3.95 GPA. And he’s a cool dude!
Also, I love my job, you should put that in there…
Dr. Schwartz earned his PhD at Harvard and is a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University, where he’s served since 1971. He’s an expert in social movements, economic sociology, and applied sociology, among other areas. He’s also a prominent critic of the War in Iraq and the author of several books, including War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (2008, Haymarket Books), Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy (1988, University of Chicago Press), and The Power Structure of American Business (1985, University of Chicago Press).
Why do you think Stony Brook has been so successful in promoting social mobility?
The makeup of the student body is remarkably diverse, and I can tell you a story: fifteen years ago, I was the first master of the undergraduate college system. Each college has between 300 and 400 students. These help students to organize their intellectual lives, and I worked in the Global Studies College. At the first meeting, we put up a big map of the world and gave the students color-coded pins: red for where they were born, white for where their parents were born, and yellow for where their grandparents were born. For the five years I was involved with the college, we never had fewer than 80 countries represented. And many of the pins were red! There is a tremendous proportion of students born outside the country and the reason for this is simple: Stony Brook gets some of the best students from New York City public high schools. Many of them are qualified to get into the fancy colleges, but some come from immigrant families who are poor and Stony Brook is affordable.
In addition to making college more affordable, can you think of other institutional or policy changes that can help other schools to replicate Stony Brook’s success?
There are many initiatives that have been successful but they keep losing funding. Financial aid is a tremendous factor here. One of Stony Brook’s administrators did a study showing that good students from a lower-income background typically take longer to finish school. They go through a pattern of enrolling and then dropping out and working awhile. We’ve been fighting for years for Stony Brook to relax some of the requirements [so that these students can complete their degrees]. There are all of these rules that make it hard for students who have to support themselves or enroll only part-time. At least the state tuition in New York is among the lowest.
What do you think about New York’s proposal to make attending college tuition-free for qualifying lower-income students?
There are very few families who will really be eligible and there are many clauses that make it difficult. Again, many of the students who are financially strapped attend school part-time or drop out to work for awhile aren’t eligible. And students aren’t getting free room and board, which is the main cost of attending college at about $15,000 annually.
This reminds me of one thing that Stony Brook University did well: since around 1990, the school has been strapped for cash. It used to receive a large share of its funds from state subsidies but this figure has been steadily decreasing with rising student tuition filling much of this gap. SUNY 2020 — a piece of legislation engineered by members of the Buffalo campus—allowed the schools to increase tuition by 8 percent annually and every penny would go to the campuses. Stony Brook was able to hire 220 new faculty and we increased the student body by 30 percent. Most importantly, the school made sure that all students eligible for TAP [i.e., the Tuition Assistance Program] wouldn’t experience a tuition increase; the school was taking a greater share from the more prosperous students and using it to pay for the kids from families with incomes under $70,000. This was a very forward-thinking measure which was emulated by other campuses.
Another thing that’s important is to have an admissions policy which weighs students against others at their same school. Much of the racist, classist, and sexist discrimination in college admissions is due to comparing people from one high school to another. A top student from a public high school in New York has just as good a chance of doing well in college as a top student from Choate [a private preparatory school in Connecticut].
You’d mentioned earlier that the largest expense in higher education is room and board. Do you think that online programs could be a way for lower income students to have access without the overhead costs?
Many people I respect are saying this. I stopped teaching just as these online courses were becoming popular. One of my colleagues and friends developed an online pre-med biology class, which is a phenomenal course. He’s one of the greatest teachers of all time. They have online chat tools, discussion sections, problem sets, and other features. It won me over to the fact that it can be done. The trouble is that what’s animating the development of many online classes is not the desire to increase student access but rather to make an inexpensive way to collect a lot of tuition. Even non-profit schools like Stony Brook and NYU are trying to reduce the cost of instruction while increasing the number of students they’re teaching.
Conclusions: How to Promote Social Mobility in Higher Ed and Beyond
While there’s evidence that the proverbial “American Dream” is increasingly out of reach for many due to the increasing wealth gap and skyrocketing student debt, there’s much hope in the insights of the these three renowned sociology professors. Advanced, detailed policy proposals are beyond the scope of this article, but there are several simple solutions gleaned from the wisdom of these interviewees and others (e.g., Urban Institute) committed to bettering the lives of Americans:
De-emphasize admissions criteria such as the SAT. Dr. Schwartz pointed out that the SAT not only doesn’t predict a student’s college readiness, but there’s also evidence of racial and gender biases in SAT questions, not to mention the disadvantages of ESL students. There have been other studies showing that strong SAT scores correlate with only one factor: high family income. In short, the test doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to and therefore it should not feature prominently in the admissions process.
Decrease (or eliminate) tuition at public universities. All three professors emphasized the importance of making a college education affordable, particularly for students from lower income families. If countries such as Brazil, Slovenia, Egypt, Argentina, and others can afford to make college tuition-free, so too can the U.S.—the wealthiest country in the world.
Increase state and federal subsidies to colleges. As Dr. Schwartz pointed out, there’s been a drastic decrease in government funds to education, even as the overall wealth of the U.S. has increased substantially. It’s imperative to reverse this trend as a disproportionate share of increasing costs for education have fallen to students.
Improve the way student debt is structured. Dr. Snyder mentioned that compared to students taking out loans, he gets a more favorable interest rate for his mortgage and gets to build equity. Since having a college education is the preeminent path to social mobility, it should be made as easy and painless as possible for students.
Create feeder community colleges or special admissions programs for motivated students from lower-income families. Dr. Joseph mentioned that Stony Brook has a partnership with Suffolk Community College which helps students ease the transition into the university. Not only is community college more affordable, but it also helps prepare students for the rigors of a four-year school.
Implement policies which allow lower income students to seamlessly finish their degrees. Dr. Schwartz described a problematic trend with lower income students: many of them are forced to take gaps in their studies in order to make money to support themselves. This often results in a loss in momentum and many of these students either don’t return or take much longer to finish their degrees than would be expected. Whether its increasing financial aid, expanding need-based grants and scholarships, or implementing other measures, it’s crucial for colleges to support lower income students in the timely completion of their studies.
Create support programs for first generation college students. Dr. Joseph stressed the importance of having adequate support on campus for students who are the first in their families to go to college. These efforts can help fill not only academic needs such as tutoring and internship placements, but they also can help fill the cultural capital gap. In other words, they can teach study skills, language usage, mannerisms, and other non-academic markers—usually imparted by families or communities—which nonetheless influence a student’s ability to succeed. In that vein, Dr. Snyder stated poignantly, “[Students] have to learn the language of power as they attempt to dismantle it.”
Colleges need to recognize that having cultural, racial, and economic diversity among students is an asset. All three professors mentioned the unique diversity in their campuses, which reflects the multivariate demographics of New York City. As research from the Harvard Business Review (Nov. 2016) found, non-homogenous groups are smarter than homogenous ones because they offer a wealth of new ideas and perspectives into workplaces as well as academic environments.
Stop treating colleges like private corporations. With soaring college costs and student loan debt, increasingly generous administrative (i.e., CEO) pay, and an eye on cutting costs by any means necessary, universities have increasingly been run as private companies rather than public institutions for the greater good and civic edification.
These are only a few of the changes which would empower more students from lower income families to attend college and complete their degrees. There’s no shortage of activists, policy proposals, scholarly journal articles, and other resources which aim to expand access to higher education and promote social mobility; rather there’s been a dismaying lack of investment in public U.S. colleges in recent decades. This has led to tuition increases and insupportable student debt, particularly for the students most in need. We all should ensure that access to higher education remains one of our nation’s top priorities if we hope to remain competitive in the world and foster healthy, civic-minded citizens.